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Haunted hearts, p.7

Haunted Hearts, page 7

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  That thought only made Alessandro’s frown deepen. It was stupid to be jealous of his clan’s primus…and yet he was. Gabriel might have suffered his own difficulties, but everything had worked out for him in the end. He now had the rule of the Escobar clan and a beautiful witch at his side. He wasn’t living in someone else’s house, pretending to be here on some sort of extended vacation instead of what he very much feared would be a permanent exile.

  You don’t know that for sure, Alessandro told himself, but the reassurance rang hollow. He found it all too easy to imagine how life would go on in Pico Negro without him, without anyone having to worry whether he’d tamper with their powers because they’d slighted him or came off better in a business deal, or whatever other scenario he could conjure. The mere fact that he’d never done anything like that on his own, had only used his null talent when forced to it by Vicénte, probably was not enough of a reassurance for the members of the Escobar clan that history wouldn’t repeat itself. If he had done it once, there was always a possibility — no matter how remote — that he might do it again.

  The kitchen was now spotless again, the leftovers safely stored in the refrigerator. Alessandro went back out to the dining room and stared at the place mats, wondering where they were kept. Elena hadn’t taken them with her when she left the kitchen, which must mean they were stored someplace else. His gaze fell on the large sideboard of carved mahogany, and he went over to it and opened one of the drawers. It contained folded cloth napkins, but that was enough to tell him he was on the right track. The next drawer down held the place mats he was looking for, so he scooped up the ones from the table and put them in there on top of their mates.

  That task done, he left the dining room and stood in the downstairs hall, irresolute. It was far too early to go to bed, but the thought of going into the room with the television and settling down for a few hours of watching shows he cared nothing about didn’t seem very appealing. He’d watched satellite TV in Pico Negro and learned English that way, much as Gabriel had, and yet such distractions had long since lost their appeal for him.

  His gaze moved upward, following the stairs as they led to the hallway that bisected the second story.

  “Idiota,” he muttered under his breath, but for some reason his feet began to take him inexorably up those steps, as though they had a mind and a will of their own that wouldn’t be contradicted.

  Once he stood in the upstairs hall, he paused in front of the door to the guest room and debated with himself. The logical thing to do would be to go to the master suite and get ready for bed. Yes, it was early, but the day had been a very long one. He’d traveled via magic to Santa Fe from Pico Negro, then drove down to Albuquerque and back here again. After such a day, why not retire to an early bed?

  While that sounded sensible enough, clearly, this was not his day to be sensible. He raised his hand and knocked on the door.

  A few seconds went by, and then a few more. He stood there waiting, wondering if Elena planned to simply ignore him until he went away. Well, if that was her plan, she would be disappointed. More than once, his mother had teased him about his stubbornness, comparing him to one of the mules the Escobars sometimes used for pack animals.

  Sometimes, though, stubbornness could be a virtue.

  Eventually, the door opened, and Elena stared up at him, expression sour. Other than that, she seemed composed enough; he saw no evidence that she had been crying or indulging herself in some other fit of emotion. Then again, why should she? Her anger at the table might have been real enough, but she had no reason to be crying…especially not over him.

  “What?” she said, her tone as annoyed as her expression.

  “I’m sorry if you were upset.”

  Far from appeasing her, that apology only seemed to increase her irritation. “Oh, really? So, you’re not sorry that you upset me — you’re only sorry about the way I reacted to what you said?”

  He prided himself on his English, but it took him a moment to unravel her scornful remark. Once he thought he’d figured it out, he said, “That is not what I meant. I just meant that I didn’t intend to upset you.”

  One perfectly arched eyebrow lifted. “You think I’m upset?”

  “You seem to be,” he replied honestly.

  Possibly one corner of her mouth quirked, just the slightest bit. “All right,” she said, apparently relenting. “I guess maybe I am. But maybe I’m also blowing things out of proportion. It’s just…I thought we were getting along okay.”

  “We were,” he told her. “I mean, we are. But there are some things I don’t want to talk about.”

  “Why? Our magical talents aren’t exactly state secrets, you know.”

  “Yours is,” Alessandro said. He could tell that comment got through to her, because her gaze shifted away from him down to some indeterminate spot on the polished wood floor. “At least, it sounds as if your family and your prima did whatever they could to keep the rest of the Castillos from finding about your gift.”

  Elena tucked a strand of long brown hair behind her ear. It really was extraordinary hair, a warm, rich cocoa shade, straight and shimmering and falling nearly to her waist. For just the barest second, he wondered what it would be like to reach out and touch that hair, to feel it slip like silk over his fingertips. But then he pushed the thought away, telling himself he had no business entertaining such notions.

  “Okay,” she said. “You got me on that one. Except…I was honest with you about my talent. I didn’t try to hide it from you. It wouldn’t be fair, since you were being nice enough to let me stay here.”

  Alessandro hesitated. While he couldn’t find it in himself to tell her the truth, he thought he should at least attempt to put her mind at ease. “I’m not hiding anything,” he lied. “I just don’t want to talk about it. Just know that it’s something that can’t hurt you.”

  Which, in essence, was true. A temporary block of someone’s magic wasn’t anything that could physically injure them, although he’d been told the sensation wasn’t exactly pleasant. For all he knew, Elena would prefer to have her own troublesome talent blocked. At least that way, she would be rendered safe in the eyes of her clan.

  Her gaze met his, frank, appraising. He made himself stand there and look back at her, hoping that he appeared guileless, not someone who was hiding something. Whether he was successful, he couldn’t tell for sure, although at length she shrugged and sent him a lopsided smile.

  “All right,” she said. “If that’s all you want to tell me right now, fair enough. Friends?”

  And she put out her hand. For a second, he stared down at it, not sure what she was asking. Then he realized she wanted to shake hands, to try to heal the small rift that had opened up between them this evening.

  Touching her seemed fraught with its own problems, especially after he’d allowed himself to fantasize about caressing her hair. However, refusing her gesture seemed as though it would be much worse.

  He reached out and wrapped his hand around hers briefly, noting how slender her fingers were, but also strong — strong and warm and entirely too welcome. As soon as he was able, he let go and made himself summon a smile.

  “Friends.”

  6

  Usually, Elena would wander downstairs in the tank top and baggy flannel pants she slept in as soon as she woke up, and get breakfast dressed that way. However, since she was now sharing a house with a man she barely knew, she figured that sort of ensemble probably wasn’t such a good idea. Glad that she’d put her toiletries in the guest bath almost as soon as she arrived here the day before, she laid out her clothes — jeans and sandals and a purple sleeveless top — and then opened the door to her bedroom just a crack so she could peer down the hall and get the lay of the land.

  To her relief, Alessandro’s bedroom door was still closed. She couldn’t hear any water running, but she didn’t know whether that was because the master bath was far enough away that she wouldn’t be able to hear it even if
someone was taking a shower in there, or simply because her housemate hadn’t yet gotten out of bed. Add that to the long list of things she didn’t know about him; she had no idea whether he was an early riser or the sort of guy who could barely force himself to crawl out of bed before noon. Either seemed equally possible, especially since he probably hadn’t held down a regular nine-to-five job back in El Salvador, or he wouldn’t have been able to take this extended vacation in Santa Fe. Most members of the Castillo clan actually did have real jobs — or at least, that was what she’d heard — but she had a feeling the Escobars weren’t much like them in that respect.

  However, since the coast was clear for the moment, she didn’t waste time on any more idle speculation, and instead scooped up her clothes and hurried down the hall to the bathroom. No point in brushing her teeth, not when she was going to have coffee and breakfast in the very near future. She turned on the water, relieved that it got hot right away. The house might be old, but apparently the plumbing had been updated at some point.

  Even so, she was quick about showering and washing her hair, just because she had no idea when Alessandro was going to get up and turn on the water in his bathroom. He’d acted like a perfect gentleman so far — easy enough to do when you didn’t have any interest in someone…she hadn’t been able to detect even a flicker of attraction from him, which she supposed should be a relief but instead was disappointing in a way she really didn’t want to analyze — but it still felt weird to be completely naked in here while a man she barely knew might be roaming the hallway outside at any moment.

  Thank God her hair always fell straight and smooth whether she blow-dried it or let it dry naturally. She combed some leave-in conditioner through it, put on tinted lip balm and mascara, and decided she’d better leave it at that. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to look as if she was trying too hard…not that she could try hard even if she wanted to, since the only cosmetics she owned were the ones she’d bought after coming to stay at the La Fonda, and she still wasn’t entirely confident about her application techniques, even after watching some YouTube videos on the subject. Her grandmother had said she had no need of such things, which might have been true enough; it hadn’t really mattered what Elena looked like when she was locked up in the family house twenty-four hours a day.

  Now she found herself caring, and thought that was just stupid. Alessandro seemed to have barely noticed she was female, which should have been reassuring. Did she even want him to notice her? Sure, he might be good-looking enough, but he was also a prickly bastard at least half the time. She didn’t need that kind of negativity in her life.

  Thus reassuring herself of her complete indifference to her housemate, she opened the bathroom door and went back down to the guest room so she could put her night clothes away. Still no sign of Alessandro, although as she paused on the top step of the staircase, she thought she could hear water running from his side of the house. Well, if he was only getting in the shower right now, that meant she should have a little peace and quiet before he emerged.

  No sign of Victoria this morning, although Elena didn’t know whether that was a good or a bad thing. Maybe now that she knew a little more about the people living in her house, Victoria had decided it wasn’t necessary to keep checking in on what they were doing. What the ghost did with her time when she wasn’t actually haunting the place, Elena had no idea. Right then, she just thought she was grateful to have the kitchen to herself.

  The coffee machine sat on the counter in plain sight, and a bunch of little biodegradable cups of various coffee and tea flavors were stacked neatly in the cupboard, so in no time she had some mocha java going, its warm aroma already beginning to fill the kitchen. They’d bought bacon and eggs at the store the day before, and she thought it might be a good idea to get some started. Sort of a peace offering. If nothing else, making breakfast would prove to Alessandro that she didn’t expect him to cook every meal.

  She was sipping her coffee and turning over the bacon in the skillet when he appeared, hair damp and cheeks a bit more stubbled than they’d been the day before. In fact, something about his slightly rumpled appearance made him look even hotter, and Elena wasn’t sure what she should do about that. She shouldn’t be finding him attractive…but she knew she did.

  He looked at the pan of bacon and then over at her, surprise clear in his expression. “I thought you said you didn’t cook.”

  “Well, I don’t know if this counts as cooking,” she said as she flipped the last piece of bacon in the pan. “I mean, it’s just breakfast. It’s not like I’m making chicken cordon bleu or something.”

  “What’s that?” he asked.

  Had that been a note of genuine curiosity in his voice? Maybe. “Chicken with ham and swiss cheese stuffed inside it. And breaded…I think.” Had it been breaded? She couldn’t remember for sure. “I saw it on a cooking show once. It’s not anything my grandmother would have made, that’s for sure.”

  “Why not?”

  Elena shrugged. “She didn’t have much use for what she called ‘gringo food.’ But I think it might have been sour grapes, mostly. I don’t think she ever forgave my father for marrying outside the clan.”

  Alessandro’s gaze flickered toward the coffee machine, and he frowned, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

  Taking pity on him, she said, “I’ll make you some. What do you like? French roast, mocha java, Sumatran?”

  “Just coffee.” He was quiet for a moment, watching her as she got another prefab cup — this one French roast — from the cupboard and inserted it in the machine. “Your mother wasn’t a Castillo?”

  “Nope.” Elena went to the refrigerator, pulled out the carton of eggs, and took them over to the stove. “Scrambled or fried?”

  “Um…fried, I suppose.”

  Well, that made things easier. She cracked four eggs into the pan she had waiting on the stovetop, then said, “My mother was a civilian and a gringa. I’m not really sure what my father was thinking. But I suppose he thought he knew what he was doing.”

  Alessandro absorbed all this without comment. Was he trying to decide whether her mixed blood had been a factor in the strange magical talent that had appeared in her? Maybe, although, as far as Elena could tell, those gifts seemed to be almost entirely random. It wasn’t as though seers always had children who were seers as well. Likewise, sometimes the children with one civilian and one witch parent could be stronger than those who were able to trace their lineage back for generations without a single nonmagical person in the lot.

  Thinking about magic only made her wonder once again about Alessandro’s talent, although she knew better than to ask him any further questions. It was way too early in the morning to get into another argument. Still, she couldn’t quite let it go. Was he embarrassed by his gift because it wasn’t all that strong or was something that seemed to pale in comparison to hers? That explanation for his reticence was plausible enough, although she had to admit he didn’t seem like the sort of person to allow that kind of lack to bother him.

  The coffee machine beeped, and she got out a mug and poured his coffee into it, then handed the drink to him. He looked somewhat surprised, as if he hadn’t really expected to get waited on like this.

  “Thank you,” he said.

  “No problem. I kind of got the impression you weren’t familiar with that sort of coffeemaker.” She went back to the stove and eyed the bacon, then decided it looked ready to go. And the eggs were close to done as well. She reached for a pair of tongs and started plucking the slices of bacon out of the pan where they lay.

  “I’m not. I don’t think I’ve seen one like that before.”

  “It’s easy. All the cups are in the cupboard” — she gestured with the tongs — “and all you have to do is slide them into the machine and turn it on. It does everything for you.”

  “Ah,” Alessandro said, one of those faint smiles touching his lips. “Now I know why my mother never purchased on
e of them. They make the process entirely too easy.”

  Elena allowed herself a chuckle. “She likes to do things the old-fashioned way?”

  “You could say that.”

  His mother sounded a lot like her abuela. However, Elena decided it was better not to make a comment along those lines, simply because it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that she resented her grandmother for a good many things, and making a comparison between the two women might not come off as particularly flattering.

  “Well, I’m fine with old-fashioned as long as it isn’t too inconvenient,” she said lightly. “But breakfast is ready — I already set the table in the dining room, so grab your plate and we can head in there.”

  He came right over and took one of the plates with the hand that wasn’t holding his coffee. In fact, he was standing so close that she caught a brief whiff of the clean scent of his still-damp hair. A little shiver went through her, but in the next second, he’d already moved, was leaving the kitchen to head down to the dining room.

  Elena shook off the moment as best she could and grabbed her own plate, then retrieved her coffee from where she’d left it sitting on the counter. Soon afterward, she seated herself at the dining room table. The space seemed much more cheerful this morning with the sunlight streaming through the tall windows on the eastern side of the house, brightening the wallpaper and shimmering in the crystal pendants that hung from the chandelier.

  “Thank you for breakfast,” Alessandro said politely. He sipped his coffee and again appeared vaguely surprised, as if he hadn’t expected a prefab version to taste halfway decent.

  “Well, I thought it was the least I could do after that feast you made for me last night,” she replied. She picked up a piece of bacon and bit into it. Mmm…perfect. Good thing she’d plucked it out of the pan when she had, or it would have gotten way too crispy. She liked her bacon to be a little meaty.

 
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